The tension between Turkey and Greece over territorial waters, continental shelf and other maritime rights, is escalating in the absence of a diplomatic breakthrough. The conflicting views are fast taking a militaristic turn in the wake of growing tensions over gas exploration efforts in the eastern Mediterranean.
Despite Turkey’s firm stance and warnings, Athens appears to militarise an island, Kastellorizo also known as Meis, which is one of the closest Greek-held islands to Turkey's southern coast in the eastern Mediterranean, triggering a Turkish backlash.
“Pointing guns toward Turkey’s coasts is foolishness,” said Omer Celik, the governing AK Party spokesman, blaming Greece with “a new type of piracy” on Monday.
According to the 1947 Paris Peace Treaty, the island of Meis should be kept in a demilitarised status.
“Italy hereby cedes to Greece in full sovereignty the Dodecanese Islands indicated hereafter, namely Stampalia (Astropalia), Rhodes (Rhodos), Calki (Kharki), Scarpanto, Casos (Casso) , Piscopis (Tilos), Misiros (Nisyros), Calimnos (Kalymnos), Leros, Patmos, Lipsos (Lipso), Simi (Symi), Cos (Kos) and Castellorizo (Kastellorizo), as well as the adjacent islets,” the treaty reads.
“These islands shall be and shall remain demilitarised,” it asserts in Article 14, which concerns Greece-Italy borders and relations.
The Turkish foreign ministry has already reacted to Greece’s attempts to militarise the island via strong words at the weekend.
“We reject the illegitimate attempts of changes on the status of the island. We also underline that Turkey will not allow such a provocation immediately across her coasts to attain its goal,” the foreign ministry statement said.
Kastellorizo is just 2 km away from Turkey's Mediterranean coast while it has a distance of 600 kilometres (370 miles) from the Greek mainland.
“Such provocative actions will prove useless for Greece. Should Greece continue to take tension-increasing steps in the region, she will be the one suffering from it,” the statement added.
The troubled status of islands
During the Lausanne negotiations, some historians including Sukru Hanioglu, a Turkish professor in Foreign Affairs and in the Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University, believed that the Turkish delegation led by the then-foreign minister Ismet Inonu, did not come up with an effective strategy to hold on to crucial islands (except for Imbros and Tenedos), primarily, the island of Kastellorizo, which were key to the country’s security.
“While the subject was being discussed at Lausanne, it would make sense for Turkey to advance two theses. The first one would demand a status quo ante bellum [the state existing before the war] settlement in the same way that the victors of the WWI proposed for the Western boundaries of Turkey. It would restore Imbros (Gokceada), Tenedos (Bozcaada), Kastellorizo (Meis) and the Dodecanese to Turkey,” Hanioglu told TRT World in an extensive interview in January 2018.
The Dodecanese refers to a Greek chain of twelve islands including Rhodes, a well-known island with an important strategic location.
“The second thesis would be handing over the Dodecanese – with the exception of Rhodes – to Greece after the Italian occupation ended, in exchange for some Northern Aegean islands to be handed over to Turkey,” Hanioglu added.
Such proposals had been suggested to the Greeks in 1914. Italians had occupied those islands in 1912 during the Italo-Ottoman War over Tripolitania, which is now Libya, an Ottoman province at the time.
But the Turkish delegation chose to pursue a different path, demanding “a special regime” for some of the northern Aegean islands and the return of Samothrace (Semadirek) island, north of the Aegean Sea, which was not important from the country's security perspective.
“The legal basis of this claim was relatively weak. As a result Turkey was compelled to accept a solution that is worse than the status quo at the beginning of WWI and abandoned Kastellorizo (Meis) which had been given to her by the Great Powers in 1914, and renounced all rights and title over the Dodecanese in favor of Italy,” Hanioglu said.
Ever since then, the question over the Aegean islands has always troubled Turkey and Greece, and has even brought the two countries to the brink of war a few times. Both have accused each other of border violations during tensions in the past.
In 1996, Turkish commandos entered uninhabited 0,4-square-kilometre islets, which are called Kardak or Imia, located between the Dodecanese and Turkey’s Aegean mainland coast. The islets were seven kilometres away from the Turkish coast.
It was a show of strength to remind the Greek government that Turkey would not compromise on the islands. The dispute was eventually calmed through the American mediation. Turkey, Greece and the US are all part of NATO.
But with the newly discovered rich gas reserves in the eastern Mediterranean, the dispute over maritime rights has reemerged between Turkey and Greece.
While Greece claims to have territorial waters and continental shelf right next to the Turkish coast on the basis of having islands near Turkey, Ankara firmly rejects that, saying that it could be totally illogical and unfair for any country.
“No one can confine Turkey, which has the longest coastline in the Mediterranean, to the shores of Antalya (a large province in southern Turkey),” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, on Monday.
“We are determined to defend the maritime rights of our citizens and the people of the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC),” he added.
In 1974, Cyprus, the disputed island, was divided into two political entities: one led by Greek Cypriots in the south and another led by Turkish Cypriots in the north, which, in turn, became the Turkish Republic of North Cyprus (TRNC) in 1983, recognised only by Turkey.
Turkey has been the protector state of the Turkish population in the island, which is located in the middle of the eastern Mediterranean and is close to the country’s southern coast, since the 1950s.